We all know every story starts at the beginning, right? But what’s the thing that truly starts every story? The answer is the inciting incident.
It’s a critical element to all narratives. This is true if you’re writing a half-hour sitcom, an epic action movie, or a small rom-com set in your apartment.
But what is an inciting incident?
Inciting incident definition
The inciting incident is an event that hooks the viewer into the story and sets everything else that happens into motion. This moment is when an event thrusts the protagonist into the main action of the story.
Note: The inciting incident should have a snowball effect. Let the story grow from the one thing that goes wrong (or right) like a snowball would if it rolled down a hill.
What makes an inciting incident good?
Keep in mind, a great question to ask when searching for an inciting incident for your screenplay: What's the worst thing that could happen to my protagonist?
We’ll take a look at that question and more as we go through these excellent inciting incident examples.
If you’re stuck wondering “what does inciting incident mean?” that’s okay - the answer isn’t the most straightforward.
While the inciting incident for Sleepless in Seattle (when Tom Hanks calls into a radio show to talk about how much he misses his deceased wife) may not have caused any wars, it was still "an occurrence of seemingly minor importance."
But this occurrence created a major change in his life.
As you recall, the definition for inciting incident is an event that urges action from a character due to an occurrence of seemingly minor importance.
The "minor importance" element has some wiggle room, though. Oftentimes, movies and shows will use an inciting force that is of extreme importance.
So it shakes down to an event that compels your protagonist to do something because of a change.
We'll show you some of the best inciting incident examples below and how these shows and movies use a wide range of inciting inciting forces - from ones of "seemingly minor importance" to ones that are much more grave.
1. Saving Private Ryan
The death of three Ryan brothers is the inciting incident for General George Marshall to find the last, missing Ryan.
Inspired by Abraham Lincoln's Bixby letter, the inciting event is heartbreaking and gorgeous.
In the grand scope of war, one man's death may not seem that important, but the death of three out of four brothers is.
The mission to... save Private Ryan... has one of the best inciting moments in film because of the inspirational context surrounding it.
The genesis of the story is built on duty, family, and love during times of war, all of which play a heavy hand in the overall narrative.
2. Glengarry Glen Ross
The inciting incident for Glengarry Glen Ross comes during one of the most recognized speeches in cinema.
Alec Baldwin's character is in the movie for maybe ten minutes at the most. But his presence at a real estate firm's field office to entice better sales goes down in history.
He explains the rules of the contest and also the steep stakes that come with it. The inciting incident, much like Saving Private Ryan's, is brilliantly framed and executed.
Sell or be fired. Always Be Closing.
It changes everything about the daily lives of these characters and sets into motion a fantastic story.
3. Die Hard
The inciting incident in Die Hard is the arrival of a fantastic villain - Hans Gruber.
John McClane, flying into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to reconcile with his estranged wife, goes to change clothes in the bathroom of the office building where her office holiday party is being held.
Gruber and his henchmen secure everyone inside as hostages except for McClane, of course.
This is the inciting moment for one of the best action movies ever made, where we know what's at risk and what it means to our hero, John McClane.
4. Monster's Inc.
After Sulley’s arch rival, Randall, leaves a closet door open on the scream factory floor, Sulley discovers that the little girl who's bedroom it leads to has walked into their world.
The inciting incident? The arrival of an adorable little girl.
After establishing how terrified the monsters are of humans, using the advent of a harmless one is a brilliant way to start their story.
The worst possible situation is now a reality and our hero, Sulley, must enlist his friend to fix it before anyone finds out.
Using the arrival of something or someone is a tried and true inciting event.
Try using a character development worksheet to create a character so dynamic (or, in this case, so feared) that their presence changes the lives of everyone in town.
5. Rear Window
The inciting incident for Rear Window is when JB hears a woman scream, "Don't!" and the sound of shattering glass.
Later that night, he is awakened by thunder and sees his neighbor, Thorwald leaving his apartment. He then notices that Thorwald's wife is missing.
This kicks off the downward spiral JB has with solving who screamed "Don't!", where Thorwald's wife is, and whether they're connected.
Hitchcock masterfully uses a mysterious cry for help as the inciting action for his wheelchair-bound protagonist and our own voyeurism to reel us in.
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
During the start of World War II, archaeologist and professor, Indiana Jones, gets questioned by the United States Army about the Staff of Ra.
The Army assigns Jones with the task of retrieving the staff from his former boss and, then, the Ark of the Covenant itself before the Nazis do.
The inciting incident to Indy's legendary tale?
Those Army intelligence agents telling him to do what he does best: Dig up ancient artifacts in heroic fashion.
This inciting event almost precisely follows Campbell’s Hero’s Journey for nearly every step. A successful writing method, it requires a strong inciting force to withstand the amount of change the protagonist goes through.
7. North by Northwest
Two thugs arrive at a hotel bar in New York City. A waiter calls out for a man named George Kaplan. At the same time, Roger Thornhill, an unassuming advertising executive, calls for the same waiter.
The two thugs sent to find Kaplan immediately think Thornhill is him. This creates an inciting incident built on a mistaken identity.
This inciting event kicks off Thornhill's wild ride in another Hitchcock classic. While North by Northwest has a tongue in cheek tone, mistaken identity are ripe with comedy and fun ways to show who a character is by making them be someone they’re not.
Regarded as one of the greatest scripts ever written, the inciting incident is when a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray hires Jake Gittes to surveil her husband, Hollis Mulwray - a prominent public figure and the chief engineer of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Gittes photographs Mulwray with a younger woman and the images get published. He later finds out that he was set up when the real Mrs. Mulwray threatens to sue him.
That initial hire set into motion the events that lead Jake from a small-time surveillance job, to solving the murder of Hollis Mulwray and uncovering the scheme he was roped into.
It's a winding path that leads Jake back into a position he was trying to avoid; getting emotionally involved.
It also leads him back to a place where nothing makes sense and there are no consequences... Chinatown.
Another example of how a mistaken identity can be an engaging and mysterious inciting moment.
9. The Bicycle Thief
In depressed Italy, a man finally gets work putting up posters and billboards. But, to do so he must have a bicycle, which he does.
That is until it's stolen while he's on the job, creating the inciting incident for the story.
He goes on a desperate search through the city to find his critical bike, pushing him to places he'd never gone.
Luigi Bartolini uses the worst possible thing that could happen to his protagonist as the inciting event that changes his life, and the life of his young boy who searches for the bike with him.
10. Gran Torino
The inciting incident of Gran Torino is the attempted theft of, well, a gran torino.
After Walt Kowalski's neighbor, Thao, tries to steal his prized car as a gang initiation, his failure is met with violence from the gang members. But Walt comes to his rescue.
This motivates Thao's mother to make him work for Walt as a sort of penance for his attempted crime. This sets the story of unlikely companions into motion.
The death of poor Chrissie Watkins is the inciting incident for this classic.
Without her dying in the literal jaws of the shark, the town would have remained the same sleepy beach town the Mayor tried so hard to maintain.
Much like how we discussed earlier using the advent of someone as an inciting incident, the opposite holds true.
Death is a powerful inciting moment for any story.
12. Some Like It Hot
The inciting incident for Some Like it Hot isn't the police raiding the speakeasy, but when Joe and Jerry bear witness to the murder of "Toothpick" Charlie.
That's what incites them to get out of town.
Speakeasies were raided all the time in the 1920s. There were lots of bars and most of them needed musicians. The characters would have found other work and their lives continued as normal.
But because they saw the murder they knew they had to get out of town before they got put on the chopping block themselves. This kicked off their zany, gender-bending story in the canonical comedy.
13. My Name is Earl
Another tricky one. While it may seem like the inciting incident is when Earl wins the lottery, it's not. It's also not when he gets hit by a car and then immediately loses the ticket.
It's when he watches Carson Daly in the hospital and learns about karma.
That knowledge puts the seed in his head to make the list of 259 bad things he's done and find a way to make up for them.
Learning what karma is set into motion a celebrated and award-winning sitcom. A story where a man learns more about himself and his capacity for good than he ever thought possible.
And to think it was all thanks to Carson Daly...
Howard Beale learning about his upcoming termination is the inciting incident for Paddy Chayevsky's Network. As the man begins to unravel live on camera, the ratings begin to skyrocket and a movement is born.
That would have never happened if it weren't for the impending cancellation.
A major life event - like being fired - is a great inciting incident. They always precede change and the journey to that change is what great stories are made of.A way to use change as an initiative for narrative is to use our story circle template to help structure your script.
15. Friday Night Lights
The inciting incident that upheaved an entire town in West Texas? When star quarterback Jason Street broke his neck attempting to tackle an opposing player.
One of the great aspects of this inciting moment is that it takes place so late in the script.
The first part is spent establishing the town, the team, how necessary Street has been for their success and how bright his future is.
Then it all comes crashing down, a reminder of how fragile everything we take for granted really is.
This motivates the rest of the series and the massive changes every character undergoes.
Up next: The story circle
Is it easy to make a great inciting incident? No. But is it possible? Absolutely. All these stories use the protagonist and the context of the world around them to create a life-changing events that ignites the rest of the narrative.Once you get a great inciting force, make sure to check out our guide to the story circle to help plan out the rest of your narrative. You should also comment with your favorite inciting incidents, and any you think should have made it to our list.
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